The Chicago Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. take note of some justice handed down by the court in the state’s case against a trucker charged with several felonies in connection with a January 2014 crash that killed an Illinois Tollway worker, and severely injured a State Trooper. We must emphasize the word ‘some,’ in terms of justice though, given the quite disturbing circumstances surrounding this horrific wreck, and the inexcusable actions of the truck driver.
As lawyers that represent injured victims and family members of persons killed in trucking collisions, we find the sentence imposed—a mere 3 year prison term—to be more of a reprimand than an actual punishment.
We first discussed this in ‘Illinois Truck Driver in Fatal Crash Accused of Driving 36 Hours Straight,’ shortly after the initiation of criminal charges against the trucker responsible for causing this fiery wreck, 47-year-old Renato Velasquez. For those unfamiliar with the accident, they are as follows: On January 27, 2014, Velasquez was traveling eastbound along I-88 near Eola Road in west suburban Aurora, when he crashed into two stationary vehicles, a patrol car occupied by State Trooper Douglas Balder, and a tollway emergency vehicle occupied by employee Vincent Petrella, both of whom had stopped to render assistance to a disabled semi.
The impact caused all vehicles to become engulfed in flames, killing Petrella, and injuring Balder so severely (13 broken ribs, broken scapula, and burns over his entire left side), that doctors had to place him into a medically induced coma for six weeks. Dupage investigators say Velasquez had fallen asleep behind the wheel after remaining on duty for more than 36 hours, with less than 4 hours of sleep—prosecutors say that he had been driving for 27 hours prior to the crash—either of which are clear violations of federal hours-of service regulations.
As reported by Fox News last month, Velasquez was found guilty of “one count of operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired or fatigued, two counts of failure to comply with hours of service requirements, one count of driving too fast for conditions, and one count of failure to yield to emergency vehicles, according to a statement from the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office.”
On Monday, April 20, 2015, Dupage County Judge Robert Kleeman sentenced Velasquez to three years in prison—stating that “[Velasquez] went over by a lot, and he made himself a dangerous motorist.” While Velasquez was given the maximum term permitted for the felonies convicted of, we also find it highly unsettling that his term was not increased given prior drug convictions, which could have resulted in an imprisonment period twice as long.
Even more disconcerting is the state’s decision to not pursue reckless homicide charges, because they felt a homicide conviction was unlikely to be substantiated given the law in Illinois. In contrast to civil actions, in which claims can be supported based upon a theory of negligence regardless of the defendant’s intent to cause harm, criminal cases are based largely upon intent. With regard to reckless homicide, the requisite level of intent, stated simply, is conduct that evidences a disregard for the safety of others.
One would think that falling asleep behind the wheel of semi-tractor trailer after driving for a period of time that nearly tripled the maximum allowed under federal rules, would clearly be conduct evidencing a disregard for the safety of others—and moreover, the precise type of conduct that the statute intended to be a punishable offense. Unfortunately, the state did not agree and Velasquez was never charged with homicide—leaving many with a feeling of unease, lack of closure, and the ability to do little more than to reflect on what could have been had the state chose to make a more vehement effort in pursing homicide charges.
The issue of fatigued driving is nothing new in the trucking industry, and continues to be a leading cause in a significant portion of the trucking collisions that occur throughout our nation each year. Ironically, the outcome in the Velasquez trial comes during a highly controversial period of time—one in which hours-of service regulations continue to be debated, while recent revisions to such rules remain in a state of suspension.
The Truck Collision attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. hope that crashes, like the one caused by Velasquez, in the very least, can contribute to future reformative measures in the trucking industry, which many feel is an industry that lacks the regulations necessary to adequately protect the public. If you or a loved one were harmed due to the actions of a negligent or reckless trucker, knowing your rights and options is the first step towards seeking financial compensation.